September 30, 2008

Personal Post 23: Using Coupons to Save Big Money

I've used a coupon or two, and I've also got the blessing of living near HEB, where there are lots and lots of in-store coupons and special offers that save me lots of cash.

However, it's not enough and I've decided to get serious about shopping with coupons. I want to be one of those people that walks away with $100s of dollars saved in the food budget -- you know those stories.

It's been a problem for me on organizing the coupons -- developing a system that's easy to use, in the store itself -- as well as scheduling the time to go and find the deals online, and in the paper.

So, today I signed up at The Coupon Mom and I'll be reported back to you on how it goes. (As you know from my previous posts, one of my problems with coupon shopping is not being tempted to buy products that wouldn't otherwise be on my list, as well as not having enough coupons that are for organic products ... I don't like to shop the middle aisles, where all those cardboard boxes are ....)

September 29, 2008

Easy Gardening: Plant In a Kiddie Pool

It may sound crazy -- or tacky to some (that's fixable), but planting a little garden in a kiddie pool is apparently a great thing. I'm going to try it.

What are the advantages?

1. No big digging efforts
2. You can scoot the thing into the garage if the weather's getting bad
3. It's easy and cheap to water
4. It's a manageable size for the newbie gardener, or for the kids
5. It will give you lots of produce if you plan right

Helpful hints I've discovered: drill some holes in the sides of the pool to allow excess water to drain away, and consider painting the rim a neutral shade and piling rocks around the sides if you want to be more, well, subtle, in your landscaping.

Sources:

History of Wading Pool Gardens
HelpfulGardener
IVillage Container Gardening Forums
Gardener'sNet

September 28, 2008

The FDIC Watch List: Should You Pull Your Money Out of Your Bank?

Yesterday, I was buying groceries at the local HEB and as usual, I whisked my debit card through the little black box, inputed my passcode, and waited for my receipt ... only to have the cashier ask me to run the card again - it hadn't gone through.

Now, I always know the balance in my checking account and my first thought was Identity Theft! But with today's economic mess, right on its heels was my second thought, My Bank's Gone Under!

Turned out that the cashier hadn't pressed a button, and my second attempt worked just fine ... but I got to wondering about the security of my bank deposits and went surfing on the web to investigate.

Here's what I learned:

1. On August 26, 2008, FDIC chairwoman Sheila Barr had a press conference where she announced that 117 banks were now on the FDIC "watch list," up from 90 banks at the beginning of the year. So, they've added 27 banks to the list in the past 8 months. It's the highest number in the past 5 years.

2. At this press conference, the head of the FDIC didn't release the actual list. The feds don't want to give out that actual information, because they are afraid that depositors will read the list, and run to take their money out of those banks on the list. The FDIC Watch List is as big a secret as the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, it seems.

Of course, there's not enough cash in these banks to cover a run - banks loan money, that's how they make a profit (think Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life) ... and the FDIC would have to step up and provide cash to cover the depositors' demands - and that's true for the healthiest of banks. The problem these days, apparently, is that loan business hasn't been profitable.

3. So far this year, 13 banks have failed in the US (WaMu was number 13). Only three (3) banks failed in 2007. A banking analyst interviewed by ABCNews opines that we'll see over 100 bank failures by the end of 2009, although most will be "small institutions."

4. LACE Financial (a company that monitors the banking industry) reports that for commercial and savings banks, net income was 74% lower in the 2nd quarter of 2008 (April, May, June) than it was for the first quarter (Jan, Feb, March) -- and that the 2nd quarter of 2008 was 87% lower than it was last year, in 2007. This is industry-wide: sounds like banks are not making any money, huh?

The FDIC Watch List -- and Other Bank Ranking or Watch Lists

5. There are companies or groups that rank the safety of banks, independently of the FDIC. These include:
  • Bauer Financial (go to their site, find your state or your bank)
  • LACE Financial (LACE doesn't offer up its "Watch List" online for free; however, it does report that in the second quarter of 2008, its D List (next to the lowest ranking) rose by 40% and its E list (lowest ranking) rose by 64%. Right now, LACE has 684 banks on its D List, and 490 institutions on its E list. And, LACE also finds its List to be more accurate than the FDIC Watch List, because the FDIC List has to await the bank examination process and the CAMEL ratings - the LACE list is simply faster to finalize. )
  • VeriBanc (you're invited to call and chat with them -- but there's a fee)
  • The Implode-O-Meter (a non-industry participant that has created its own ranking system and website list -- "implode," defined as "the "imploded" status is somewhat subjective and does not necessarily mean operations are ceased permanently: it can mean bankruptcy filing, temporary but open-ended halting of major operations, or a "firesale" acquisition. The Companies include all types (prime, subprime, or a mix of both; retail or wholesale; subsidiaries and entire companies). Note: Companies listed here may still be operating in some capacity; check with them before making assumptions." According to this Watch Group, 286 major financial institutions have "imploded" in the US over the past year and a half (since 2006). )

So, with this scary news, what do you do? Do you pull your money?

6. If you've got money in a bank, the first thing you should know is whether or not your money is deposited at an institution that is protected by the FDIC. Go check the FDIC online list to find out. Whether or not the FDIC is strong enough to handle the hits it may be facing is one issue (watch for an upcoming post on that concern)but not having your money in an account that's even offered FDIC protection is another. If you're banking, then you want FDIC protection.

7. Next, remember that the FDIC doesn't cover everything -- the contents of your safety deposit box aren't covered; any amounts over $100,000 in your checking account and $250,000 in your IRAs aren't covered; money market funds, etc. are not covered. Move your funds around, as needed, to make sure you are within the guidelines -- and if you've got cashed stashed in those safety deposit boxes, think about whether that's the best place for it to be.

8. If your bank fails, and it's protected by the FDIC, then you may face a couple of days where access to your account might be hampered. Keep some cash on hand, if you can, to cover the necessities -- diapers, gas, things like that.

9. If you choose to take your money out of a bank, then you're faced with difficulties. First, how to protect it. That's one reason for a bank, right? Fire, burglary - these are real threats to your nest egg. Also, you're going to face a difficult time paying your bills if you've been accustomed to writing a check, or paying online. You can pay by money order, but it's a hassle. Maybe you stash cash and keep an account open at an institution you consider safe, just to pay bills - keeping as little cash there as possible, depositing right before you pay the monthly invoices?

What does all this mean?

10. Here's LACE Financial's outlook:

The financial condition of the U.S. banking system is rapidly deteriorating as the increased number of banks on the LACE Watch List reflects. It appears to us that nineteen of these banks should have already been closed and thirty-two other banks require capital infusions or regulatory assistance. A major cause of failure for several of these banks will be due to high concentrations in real estate construction lending. Given the likely resource constraints of Federal regulators, we would expect a measured closure rate of approximately ten banks by the end of 2008 with failure rates accelerating after the first of the year. As such, LACE Financial maintains a negative outlook for the U.S. banking system.



11. For me, this means that this Fall will be bad, but next year will be worse -- unless some major events transpire. In my surfing around, I've started to see the phrase "slow depression," mentioned quite a bit. I'm going to pray and study a lot, take it a day at a time, and a step at a time, and I'm going to read those folk over at the Daily Reckoning, among others. They've been warning about this crisis for a long time now.

Fear is Your Enemy

Fear can hurt you, even destroy you. This is no time to panic, it's time to be smart. You will get through this. Everything is going to be alright -- maybe not the same, but you and yours will be okay. And, if you're already in the process of living a simplicity lifestyle, you're ahead of the game.

For more information:

What is Simplifying? Should You Do It?
Starting to Simplify - Step 1
Starting to Simplify - Step 3
Are You Brave Enough to Read Empire of Debt?

September 22, 2008

Procrastination Is An Enemy to Simplifying Your Life

Simplifying your life means changing your lifestyle. Changing your methods of living life can be very difficult, even when you are proactively wanting to alter things.

When you are involuntarily simplifying because of a lost job or unexpected expenses, it gets even harder. It's easy to procrastinate. Especially when things seem overwhelming. When you're afraid, it's easy to be a deer in the headlights - thinking that if you do nothing, maybe it will all go away.

Procrastination is Your Enemy

Procrastination, however, is your enemy. Don't put off things that will ultimately benefit you and your family. Nothing good can come from it.

Hara Marano's Great Article

There's a great article by Hara Marano over at Psychology Today discussing the evils of procrastination, and I encourage you to jump right over there and read it. It contains such jewels as:

  • Procrastination is a "profound problem of self-regulation." I never thought of procrastination this way before, and it makes good sense.
  • Procrastination "is one response to an authoritarian parenting style ...," where controlling parents prevent the kids from "developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them." Without judging anyone's childhood, I like the idea that identifying your own intentions and learning to act on them is a kind of self-awareness and I especially appreciate the phrase "self-regulation." Regulation of one's self, instead of having advertising agencies regulating one's behavior by set society standards, is a key component to successfully simplifying your life.
  • "Procrastinators "actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don't take a lot of commitment on their part." The example that was given was reading (or checking) e-mail, but I'm thinking video games and watching mindless television also count. Why do this? "They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure."
  • Procrastinators aren't all the same. There are the "thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush;" the "avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability;" and "decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision ... [which]absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events."
How to Change?

How to change? The Marano article suggests "highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy," whatever that is. Personally, I think that the power of prayer is of great use here, too. It's been my experience that faith can conquer procrastination:

  • “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.” -- Ecclesiastes 11:4 (The Living Bible)
  • "For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control." -- 2 Timothy 1:7 (CET)

September 18, 2008

Freebie Dangers: Getting Your Yahoo Email Hacked

Yesterday and today, the news is filled with Gov. Sarah Palin's Yahoo E-Mail account being hacked, and the contents spread over the web. Last night on TV, I heard that even her teenaged daughter's cellphone number was revealed - and that she was getting calls from strangers.

Look, I don't care how you're voting -- there are mentally ill people out there, surfing the web, who don't need to have personal contact information for the minor children of politicians, celebrities, and the like. That's just dangerous and children should be protected no matter how famous their parents are.

Okay, enough of the soapbox.

Freebies are great, but ....

Freebies are great. Simplifying life means taking advantage of freebies whereever you find them.

And one of the great free services that's out there is Yahoo Mail. I use it everyday -- along with Yahoo Calendar, and I'm very happy with the service.

But is it safe? Can my Yahoo E-Mail Be Easily Hacked? Just how private is my Yahoo mail?

Well, I went and found a blog with a detailed explanation of how Sarah Palin's email was hacked (go here for details) and discovered that you're only as safe as the hacker's access to your personal information.

In Palin's case, he (or she) had the opportunity to surf the web for all sorts of personal information (where Sarah Palin went to high school, her residence's zip code, etc.) which he/she then used to start playing around with the secret questions that Yahoo asks when you report to Yahoo that you've forgotten your password.

So, once the hacker had her username -- not sure how he/she got that -- he/she started playing around with the Secret Questions until he got to change the password himself. And then, the hacker took over the mailbox after changing the password to "popcorn" -- reading it, disseminating it.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Freebie Email Account?

Yahoo has some security suggestions -- they seem inadequate here. As of this posting, I did not find any clear, easy-to-follow article or post that provided clear guidance on how to protect your Yahoo E-Mail account from being hacked just like Sarah Palin's.

I did find these suggestions:

1. Use a long, strange password and change it often. Nothing connected to your personal information. Letters and numbers.

2. Use different emails for different things. Have disposal emails. (I do this -- I have an email address for newsletters and the like, not only a separate account but on a separate service. No personal information goes thru here.)

3. Protect your computer with firewalls and a good anti-virus software (me, I use AVG - it's free and it's good).

Two things I would add:

(1) have your own set, bizarre answer to any secret question - your mother's maiden name? Manufacturer or Llama ... name of your first pet? Lawn or Expense. Why? Even if they can get your username, no amount of personal information is going to give them your zany answer to the secret question; and

(2) change your IP address via your ISP periodically -just call and ask, they can do this remotely.

Maybe we'll get some good techie advice soon - and maybe Yahoo will even go public with some more advice on this issue. If I see/hear anything more, I'll post it here in the Comments.

September 16, 2008

Examples of Excess-7: "Excessive Leverage and Greed"

Eric Fry over at the Rude Awakening offers the following quote today in his post:

Looking back, what was the cause of this credit crisis?” CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo asked Bank of America’s CEO, Ken Lewis, during an interview yesterday morning. “What caused this whole mess?”

“Excessive leverage and greed,” Lewis responded.

Wow. At least they know who they are -- I've always thought Richard III was less evil than Iago, when comparing those two great Shakespearean villians, because at least Richard III was honest about what he was doing.

Today's News - Lehman, AIG, and Merrill Lynch

In today's news, banks are pack-ratting their cash in a way that would make Ebenezer Scrooge proud -- Bloomberg is reporting that the cost of borrowing money doubled overnight -- to the highest rate since the fears right after 9/11 - and there's rumors it's not just Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and American International Group Inc. that are in serious trouble. (AIG stock has lost 94% of its value over the past year, and Lehman just filed bankruptcy.)

In response, the Federal Reserve added $70 billion to reserves - and news is still breaking by the hour on what's happening with the Dow and when the other shoe is going to drop (or if it's going to drop, or if there is another shoe ...).

The Big Kahuna Meeting

The Scotsman has a good read on the Lehman story -- the Big Kahuna meeting on Sunday where Lehman wasn't saved by Fed Reserve Chairman Bernanke (the stuff of movies, who will George Clooney play?), how Lehman began as a small little business in Alabama to become the "biggest overseas bank in America," ....

That was a big meeting on Sunday, by the way -- as The Scotman describes, not only was Lehman's fate decided, but so was AIG's and Merrill Lynch ... who had a happier ending to the day: Bank of America (remember that quote at the start of this post?) rode in like the cavalry and tookover the stockbrokerage firm for $50,000,000,000.00.

And it was just last week that we were reeling from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Long ago, in a time far away, I studied finance - and I remember my professor being almost in despair at the continued deregulation of the banking industry. He foresaw doom, he valued frugality, and he bought gold. To give you an idea, back then the market hadn't hit 1000. That's right: 1000. That wasn't so very long ago, you know.

Today, I see his face clearly and I remember his concerns: money is a temptation best left in different pots, and we're so far from being out of the woods. Letting a major national bank takeover a stock market firm is troubling to me. Should banks own brokerage firms?

"Excessive leverage and greed. " Indeed.

September 7, 2008

My Favorite Simplicity Posts of the Week

Here are some great reads for you:

1. Simplicity for the Novice over at HappyToBeAtHome -- Joy writes a great post on what simplicity means to her and her family, and how her Christian faith is the Cornerstone of this lifestyle (mine,too).

2. Realizing How Much You Already Have published by ChoosingVoluntarySimplicity. Pretty, inspiring.

3. The Weekend Round Up over at A Satisfying Journey Towards Simplicity -- Nikki's post is a fun, smooth read, and personally, I like the image of the chickens running around ....

4. Adele over at Simplicity has a wonderful post discussing the Theology of Work which is made even more inticing because she's writing from her home in Kenya, heading over to Capetown.

5. Nikki Painter's recipe for her Easy Tuna Mac Casserole, along with her description of being sick this past week, the family going out for Taco Bell, and a friend helping out made me smile - I don't like to think that simplicity is starting to sound trendy and even snooty, and it's great to read about other people who think it's hunky dorey to "break out of the box" and go to the Bell every once in a while (for me it's cheap, and it reminds me of high school). (I'm also gonna try that casserole.)